Grading the J-Pop Agencies 2023: Johnny’s & Associates / Family Club / (Who Knows?)

The Good

Prior to the agency undergoing dramatic changes this fall, the entity-formerly-known-as-Johnny’s (seriously, I don’t even know what to call it!) had a solid enough start to the year. Its acts continued to dominate, with record sales numbers for King & Prince ahead of their reconfiguration and Snow Man leading the charge for the agency’s new acts.

I don’t think these initial months unveiled any classic songs, but most artists continued to chug along. Travis Japan is slowly getting off the ground with stronger music. News celebrated their 20th anniversary with a triumphant victory lap and clearly-defined sound. And, we got strong albums from Sexy Zone, KAT-TUN and Snow Man.

Naniwa Danshi unveiled a flurry of new releases this year, adding fuel to their already successful roll-out. Johnny’s West (now called WEST.) feel very comfortable with their sound and are taking more and more creative control as their career goes on. Their tenth anniversary next year should be interesting. SixTONES have also carved out a very specific niche for themselves within the agency.

As usual, the entity-formerly-known-as-Johnny’s continued to dominate dramas and entertainment shows, though that may change as we move into this new era. Their Junior division also remains a large facet of their success, with many of these yet-to-debut groups scoring big appearances of their own.

The Bad

I’m not sure we can even grade that-which-shall-not-be-called-Johnny’s in 2023 because they’re currently enduring a collapse and rebirth the likes of which we’ve never quite seen from an agency this large. After deceased founder Johnny Kitagawa’s decades of abuse came to light, Johnny’s is changing everything from its name to its internal structure. And at least for the moment, many of its talents have been blacklisted from certain commercial deals and entertainment appearances. This has long been a dominant factor in the agency’s success, so it remains to be seen how (or if) they’ll rebound in the future. The fact that none of their artists have been invited to the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen broadcast doesn’t bode well.

I have a huge bone to pick with all of this because it feels so hypocritical. Kitagawa’s predatorial behavior has long been an open secret. If a non-Japanese speaker all the way from the States knew about it, you better believe these corporations and commercial entities knew about it as well. Their holier than thou attitude seems rather late in coming and feels like it’s punishing the agency’s artists out of a need to course correct when Johnny’s should have been pushed on this matter years and years ago. Honestly, I feel bad for the artists. That’s where my allegiance lies, and I hope that’s where the agency’s attention will focus as well. Their drastic restructuring feels quite messy but well-intentioned, so we’ll see if they can turn things around next year. However, this is a situation that goes well beyond Johnny’s so I hope to see attention paid to the overall entertainment system.

Even without this massive upheaval, it was a less-than-stellar year for the agency. A number of artists cut ties, including members of King & Prince, Kis-My-Ft2 and A.B.C-Z. Junior group IMPACTors also departed, joining Hideaki Takizawa’s TOBE and debuting as IMP. In fact, TOBE has managed to poach most of these departing artists, quickly establishing a roster that could eventually go toe-to-toe with the former Johnny’s. Given how strong TOBE’s output has been so far, that’s probably for the best.

Amidst all this drama, the agency released a steady stream of music. Much of it was very good, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by their 2023 output as a whole – at least compared to other years. Veteran groups Kis-My-Ft2 and Hey! Say! JUMP seem a bit forgotten by the agency – especially the former. I suppose this is natural when you have new artists coming in, but I just hate to see their music soften and become a shadow of past glories. I hope 2024 can be a big year for both acts.

Sales for the new two-member King & Prince have been strong, but I don’t think the two-member configuration is working. I love both members. I just don’t love the music they’ve been given. They’re cooler than the sappy mid-tempos they’ve been saddled with and I don’t see this sustaining in the long run.

When I really think about it, I can’t come up with a Johnny’s act that felt truly ascendant in 2023. Most simply maintained their level of popularity. For heavy hitters like Snow Man, that meant another very strong year. But with the weight of the entertainment world bearing down on the agency, I really hope we can see some definitive forward movement next year. Much of that will depend on how their new restructuring is perceived by the J-pop infrastructure. Because so many facets of the agency remain in flux, I don’t feel like I can assign an accurate grade for 2023.

2023 Grade: Incomplete

What I’d like to see in 2024:

The turning of a new page, with a structure that benefits artists and fans
More global outreach where it counts (ie: global touring, official English subtitles not reliant on fan submissions)
A full Kis-My-Ft2 album (second year in a row I’ve wished for this!)
A few big public hits. This is the time to further explore streaming services!

Previous years: 2022 // 2021

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